Astronauts have to train for hundreds of hours before they can embark on extravehicular activity, better known as a spacewalk. They run countless simulations in buoyancy pools — or huge tanks of water that resemble the vacuum of space — to get fully accustomed to their space suits.
These high-tech outfits are the lifeline for astronauts when they embark on EVAs. On Tuesday morning, recent International Space Station crew members Randy Bresnik and Jack Fischer held a Q&A session on Facebook Live to reveal some of the accessories and safety features their suits have and what the future of space suits might be like.
Tethers And Jet Packs
The idea of floating off into the emptiness of space is a terrifying one, which is why astronauts have four “layers of defense” when it comes to keeping them safely near the ISS.
Bresnik explained that there are handles located outside the space station that astronauts can grab onto. They are also tethered to the ISS by two cords, one of which is a braided steel wire attached to the air lock, so they can return to safety if their primary tether somehow snaps.
If both of these life-lines were to fail, NASA space suits are also outfitted with a remote control jet pack so astronauts can fly themselves back to station.
“We have a nitrogen-fueled jetpack that we could engage,” said Bresnik. “If you remember the movie Wall-E where he used the fire extinguisher and pointed it in different direction to fly himself back to the ship. We have jets pointing in all directions, so we don’t have to move a hose, but it’s the same type of concept.”
Multi-Layered Suits To Guard Against Rips And Leaks
During training, both Bresnik and Fischer rehearsed what they would do if a fellow astronaut’s suit were to be compromised, what they called “incapacitated crew member” situations. They went on to say that these are extremely rare situations because of how resistant their suits are.
The outside layer is made of a kevlar-woven fabric — the same stuff used to absorb grenade blasts in military equipment. They also have a thermal layer that stabilizes the temperature inside the suit, since outside the Earth’s atmosphere temperatures spike and dip wildly.
Underneath that all they have an absorbent body suit to handle the call of nature.
“It’s called the Maximum Absorbency Garment, or MAG,” said Fischer. “That sounds cool, but it’s a ginormous man diaper.”
More Adaptable Suits In The Future
When asked if they could change one thing about a their space suits, Fischer replied that he would like to see designs for smaller body types. He recalled that one of his colleagues, Peggy A. Whitson, completed a few EVAs with an extra-large space suit that limited her mobility.
“She didn’t have as much reach as she could have if it was a smaller piece,” said Fischer. “That would be my first desire in a suit, a little bit more adaptable to people.”
Fischer then went on to explain that NASA is working on those exact features for their next-generation space suits.
So perhaps some day in the not-so-distant future, astronauts will look a little bit more like Iron Man instead of the Michelin Men.